Owing to the cancellation last season of this Valery Gergiev concert and the unavailability of the Sheldonian Theatre for its re-arranged date, Oxford Philharmonic's opening shot at the Town Hall in its battery of events for the 2017-18 season (announced not least by a shiny new ticket design) was a meaty Russo-Italian programme. The great hall, like an exploded wedding cake with its sculptured decoration and snowy stucco work wherever one looks, was not far off full as we got under way with the overture to Rossini's William Tell opera. To 50s b/w boys' TV serial addicts like me, this music will always conjure up both the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloping over the range and Herr Tell spearing with a single arrow the apple placed on his son's head. But there's more to the overture than this, and after the opening rumbling from Mats Lidstrom's cello we pressed on via a couple of timpani outbursts suggesting storms over the Grossglockner, the narrative music eventually swooping to lower altitude for that rollicking tune.
Stravinsky's Violin Concerto had as soloist Roman Simovic, one of the leaders of the LSO. The work is all the more cherishable since Nick Breckenfield in his notes reminded us that it was the one and only concerto with soloist and full orchestra from the composer. The 1 st movement is marked 'allegro vivace' and Mr Gergiev took it fast and furiously. His conducting style is both interesting and unusual; here are no expansive gestures, arms spread wide like those of a traffic cop on Times Square. His baton is not much longer than a lead pencil and he gets his fingers to do the work, fluttering in the fashion of a magician who has just pulled a brace of doves from his sleeve cuffs. The violin part here is more often than not paired either with one or other solo instrument or the orchestra as a whole - thus in the second movement with the birdsong-like flute from the principal flautist Tony Robb, one of the prime adornments of this orchestra, and in the finale with concertmaster Carmine Lauri.
Mr Lauri in an interview from April last year picked out Valery Gergiev as the maestro with whom he has most enjoyed playing in his career to date. In the third movement Mr Simovic, a commanding figure in long frock coat (appropriately garbed in this late Victorian building and standing beneath two "VR" reliefs on the wall), kept his bow dancing up and down the range, here in conjunction with the pleasing bassoon section. His thrilling encore was Ballade No. 1 in G minor by Eugène Ysaÿe, the Belgian composer and violin maestro; longer than many encore pieces and received by the audience with great enthusiasm.
The filling in the Stravinsky sandwich was Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, and Mr Gergiev was at pains to differentiate the discrete tempos. It began with swiftly repeated chords in the woodwind serving as a bustling accompaniment to the exuberant first subject on the violins. The solemn 'andante' is supposedly inspired by Italian religious processions, a Corpus Christi one perhaps. The finale is a tarentella, a dance prescribed as a cure for a bite by a tarantula spider. The idea is that the victim does this dance to the point of collapse; but by then the poison has been thoroughly sweated out. Talk about fanciful!In terms of raw excitement, the best was kept until last. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite may be short – anyway in this Concert Suite form - but it packs a knock-out punch. Sotto voce bassoons grunting like bullfrogs took us away at the start, and then the firebird (half phoenix and half woman) appears in a dazzling coruscation of woodwind notes, the oboe being paramount. The main theme of a Russian folk song was given to the solo oboe of Emily Pailthorpe. She told me afterwards she is a relative newcomer to the Oxford Philharmonic and is oboist with the highly-rated London Conchord Ensemble. Her playing with this theme was smooth but vigorous. I thought her the stand-out performer in the orchestra all evening, and she'll be a big asset in Oxford. There have been a few retirements recently, but here's an instance of the orchestra renewing itself with strong talent.
This was a cracker of a concert, a gesture of intent for the season ahead which already looked on paper to be the strongest yet. Oxford music lovers are already looking like Cheshire cats.